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Published: Saturday, 10/15/2005

Internet free speech

POLITICAL bloggers have made the Internet their own personal soapbox. They can react 24/7 to anything or anyone on myriad Web sites across the political spectrum. They freely rant and rave to like-minded or diametrically opposed bloggers the world over.

While the explosion of discourse is clearly one of the more curious by-products of online communication, blogging is nevertheless speech that gives voice and venue to millions. It deserves protection, not regulation, by the government.

The Federal Election Commission has been ordered by a federal court to draw up regulations that would extend the nation's campaign finance laws to political activities on the Internet. But the court didn't tell the FEC how to do it, giving the agency considerable leeway on addressing the issues.

The commission has apparently resolved a number of Internet matters in relation to campaign finance and spending limits, but is still considering whether long-standing freedom of press exemptions to its rules should apply to online publications and, by extension, bloggers.

Critics like Carol Darr, of the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and Internet at George Washington University, say bloggers should not be exempt from the laws governing political campaigns because many of the blogs are aggressively partisan, advocating candidates or causes, and occasionally raising money for same.

"They want to preserve their rights as political activists, donors, and even fund-raisers - activities regulated by campaign finance laws - yet, at the same time, enjoy the broad exemptions from the campaign finance laws afforded to traditional journalists," she said.

It's safe to say most bloggers would not describe themselves as traditional or mainstream journalists offering unbiased and fair views, but that's not the point of exempting their speech from government regulation.

They argue convincingly that FEC regulations on the Internet, even ones limited to advertising, would have a chilling effect on free speech. And if bloggers have to meet a government test every time they discuss politics, predicts Michael Krempasky of the RedState.org Web site, they'll pass on political engagement through the keyboard altogether.

"The reaction will be completely predictable," he said. "Rather than deal with the red tape of regulation and the risk of legal problems, they will fall silent on all issues of politics."

The FEC should be more concerned about protecting bloggers from government oversight than scrutinizing their ideological communiques for the appearance of corruption. Fortunately wiser heads on the six-member commission are expected to prevail on this debate.

A majority vote is needed to pass a new policy, and the Republican vice chairman, among others, has publicly questioned the need for any Internet rules. "I strongly believe that the online political speech of all Americans should remain free of government review and regulations," said Michael Toner.

He thinks Congress should pass a law pre-empting the court's action and ensuring that the Internet remain free from campaign finance rules.

It must be so if the First Amendment is to be upheld for every voice raised from whatever soapbox.

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